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Kentucky reacts to McConnell stepping down as U.S. Senate GOP leader

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Kentucky reacts to McConnell stepping down as U.S. Senate GOP leader

Feb 28, 2024 | 2:24 pm ET
By McKenna Horsley
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Kentucky reacts to McConnell stepping down as U.S. Senate GOP leader
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Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife former U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao enter the Graves County Republican Breakfast, part of the annual Fancy Farm political festivities, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

FRANKFORT — As news in Washington broke that Sen. Mitch McConnell, the longest serving floor leader of the U.S. Senate, planned to step down from that role this November, eyes in Kentucky turned to the senator’s legacy. 

McConnell, also Kentucky’s longest-serving U.S. senator, is routinely credited by Republicans for building the current state party, which has won supermajorities in both legislative chambers and many local offices.

Earlier this year, he reminisced that when he defeated a Democratic incumbent in 1984 to represent Kentucky in the Senate, control of state government was firmly in the hands of Democrats. He was speaking in the Capitol Rotunda, celebrating the inaugurations of six Republicans who were elected statewide — to all of the constitutional offices except governor and lieutenant governor — last November. 

Kentucky reacts to McConnell stepping down as U.S. Senate GOP leader
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, left, and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, right, attended Kentucky’s constitutional swearing-in ceremony, Jan. 2, 2024. (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

McConnell’s announcement comes as former President Donald Trump solidifies his place as the GOP frontrunner in this year’s presidential election. Trump easily carried Kentucky twice and would be the favorite to do so again in November.

Last week, Trump said he was unsure if he would be able to work with McConnell in a second term. McConnell has blamed Trump for provoking the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 and has said that Trump is bad for the GOP, although McConnell voted to acquit Trump during his impeachment trial in February 2021.

McConnell has said he would support his party’s nominee but has not endorsed Trump, even as other prominent Republicans, including Senate Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota, have. The New York Times recently reported that McConnell’s and Trump’s camps have been in talks about securing McConnell’s endorsement for the former president.

McConnell, speaking Wednesday on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C., told his colleagues that the “end of my contributions are closer than I’d prefer.” He recently  turned 82. McConnell spoke of difficulties his family faced recently, such as the death of his wife’s youngest sister, Angela Chao.

McConnell plans to serve the remainder of his term which ends in January 2027. However, political observers have predicted he will not run for reelection in 2026.

“There are many challenges we must meet to deliver for the American people and each will have my full effort and attention,” he said. “I still have enough gas in the tank to thoroughly disappoint my critics and I intend to do so with all the enthusiasm which they have become accustomed.”

Last year, concerns about the senator’s health were raised after he suffered a concussion and two freeze-ups in front of reporters, including one in Northern Kentucky. Since then, McConnell has continued to speak publicly, both in Washington and at home in Kentucky. 

Succession

Kentucky Republicans, including McConnell, have been preparing for a succession to his seat.

In Frankfort, Republican House Floor Leader Steven Rudy, of Paducah, filed House Bill 622 last week which would change the gubernatorial appointment process for U.S. Senate vacancies. If passed, the bill would allow winners of special elections to hold their Senate seat through the remainder of an unexpired term. 

Before 2021, Kentucky’s governor had no restrictions on naming a replacement for a Senate vacancy. However, with McConnell’s support, Kentucky’s Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a law to require the governor to temporarily appoint someone of the same party as the departing senator. 

Gov. Andy Beshear, a recently reelected Democrat, vetoed the 2021 legislation. His GOP opponent, McConnell protegé and former Attorney General Daniel Cameron, pushed Beshear on the campaign trail for not publicly committing to naming a Republican to fill a possible Senate vacancy.

“The reason we’re having this conversation is people speculating over his health, which I just don’t think is right,” Beshear told reporters after a Paducah debate in October. “I even told his (McConnell’s) state director that I wasn’t going to do this. I wasn’t going to go there because he says he’s healthy. He says he’s going to finish out his term, and I’m going to respect those wishes.”

Beshear thanked McConnell “for his years in leadership” in a Wednesday statement.

“There is no indication that he will not fulfill his promise to serve his entire term,” the governor said.

Later at an appearance in Shelby County, Beshear said McConnell deserves “widespread appreciation” for his long service. “For how long he has served in the position of leadership is pretty special, and we just want to say ‘thank you,'” the governor told reporters. Asked if he remains committed to serving out the full four-year second term he won in November, Beshear replied, “100 percent.”

Ahead of the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in August, McConnell addressed a room of party faithful at the Graves County GOP Breakfast — and vowed the West Kentucky political tradition wouldn’t be his last. 

Kentucky reaction

Cameron, who is now an executive with the 1792 Exchange, thanked McConnell for his “servant’s heart and commitment to first principles” on X, formerly Twitter Wednesday.

“Leader McConnell has left an indelible impact on our Nation and our state,” Cameron said. “From the Supreme Court to defending America’s values, he has relentlessly pursued the US’s role as a shining city on a hill.”

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams — a former McConnell scholar at the University of Louisville — congratulated the senator on X on his tenure leading U.S. Senate Republicans. 

“Not only has he served our country in this role, he has elevated Kentucky,” Adams said. “Best wishes for his continued career in (the) Senate.”

Russell Coleman, Kentucky’s attorney general and former legal counsel for McConnell, said in a a statement that the senator is the “most consequential leader in Senate history” and that his family valued him for his kindness and mentorship.

“Leader McConnell has single handedly made sure Kentucky punches above our weight, and his legacy of accomplishment can be seen in every corner of the Bluegrass State,” Coleman said. 

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers, of Manchester, applauded McConnell as “a tremendous leader in the U.S. Senate and in Kentucky” and said he aided in changing “the body politic in Frankfort, putting Kentucky on a much better trajectory.” 

“He’s contributed significantly not only at the federal level, but also at the state level,” Stivers said. “Being a leader of a chamber myself, I have great respect and admiration for the job he’s done.”

Across the capitol, Republican House Speaker David Osborne, of Prospect, echoed Stivers’ comments about McConnell.

“Personally, I am sorry to see him leave a role he has served so well and leveraged to benefit so many. However, I wish him the absolute best in this next chapter,” Osborne said.

Don Fitzpatrick, the chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, said the local GOP party was “surprised to hear of Leader McConnell’s decision ” in a statement.

“Though we are saddened by this news, we fully support his decision and have tremendous gratitude for all he has accomplished for our Nation, for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and for our local Republican Party,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are reassured that his vast experience will be of continued service to not only the US Senate but also to our Commonwealth.”

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky’s second senator, offered a one-sentence comment: “I’d like to congratulate Senator McConnell on his long tenure.”

The relationship between the two has soured recently. Earlier this month, Paul criticized McConnell’s support for the standalone foreign aid bill.

Jack Brammer contributed to this report.

This story may be updated.

 

Kentucky reacts to McConnell stepping down as U.S. Senate GOP leader
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to a Senate Republican luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 28, 2022. Congress was working to pass a government spending bill before funding ran out the end of the week. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)